Hillary's objection to politics

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I filed a column yesterday that the FT will run on Monday (it will be posted on the blog Sunday night), asking what went wrong with Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The answer of course is many things, not least Barack Obama, but the thing I focus on is Hillary’s difficulty with seeming genuine—such a contrast with Barack's seemingly effortless authenticity. So much about her, so much of what she says, seems plotted, rehearsed, and false.

But I wish I had read this excellent article by Gloria Borger in US News first (thanks to Real Clear Politics for the link), because it might have made me tweak my argument somewhat. She concentrates on something very important which I think has been too little commented on--the fact, which is both obvious and astonishing when you think about it, that Hillary evidently does not care for politics.

William Jefferson Clinton, AKA the "Comeback Kid," survived Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky, impeachment, and open-heart surgery. He became a money-raising proposition for conservatives who hated him; a magnet for Democrats who loved his ideas and energy. During campaigns, the incorrigible candidate shook every hand and lingered in every crowd, as if he himself had been waiting hours in line to hear his own speech. Even in the darkest moments, a former staffer recalls, he always believed the sunny leader survives. "Hillary's husband taught us all that the optimistic, positive candidate is the one who wins," says a former Bill Clinton aide who supports Hillary Clinton. "He would tell us that constantly. And he was right."

But there is no joy in Hillaryville. In its place are anger (at the press, for being soft on Barack Obama), angst (at losing 11 straight contests), and apoplexy (at Obama, for daring to challenge a nomination that was supposed to have been wrapped up by now). In an aside at last week's Ohio debate, Clinton herself noted she hasn't found much happiness lately. "It's hard to find time to have fun on the campaign trail," she said, by way of explaining an anti-Obama screed she had delivered a few days earlier. Translation: This should have been over with already. This wasn't the plan. I don't like it.

Yes. Exactly right. Can you imagine Bill ever saying, “It’s hard to find time to have fun on the campaign trail”? The point of course is not that Bill always makes time for fun, it is that he so obviously loves campaigning itself: the campaign is not something he puts up with, it is something he lives for. Bill adores politics, Hillary does not. She wants power, and then to be left alone to exercise it. Politics is something you have to do to get there, a tiresome exhausting nuisance— and a process all too likely to choose the wrong person.

This impatience and exasperation with the prelude to power is another dimension of the larger falseness I’m complaining about—but it’s worse than that. Would the country be well-served by a president who thinks she has all the answers, and has no patience for the views of other, inevitably much less well-informed, people? (This is the Hillary of Hillarycare. She says she learned from that experience. Did she?) However competent she may be—and her record in fact is mixed—I doubt that America wants another president whose watchword is “Leave me alone, I know what I’m doing."

Just one thing in Gloria Borger’s piece I disagree with:

Obama…ran on one big idea. And while his notion of change remained constant, the candidate himself evolved and is still capable of surprise. Indeed, at the debate, Obama refreshingly admitted that "there's a vanity aspect and ambition aspect to politics." And when Clinton admonished him to reject—and not just denounce—the endorsement of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, what did Obama do? He said, OK, fine, I'll do it. As if he had nothing left to prove.

I don’t think Obama has evolved in the sense she seems to intend. He is a more relaxed debater, yes, but he still seems the same man. When you listen to Obama—now, as at the beginning—you think you know him. That disarming admission about vanity and ambition does not signal a new trait. That glimpse of a real and unrehearsed person underneath is absolutely Obama, and has been all along.

One needs to keep reminding oneself, this isn’t necessarily going to make him a good president. But it is a big part of what has made him, from the outset, a uniquely attractive candidate.

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